The GOP's Iraq Problem
All spring and summer, the Republicans ducked the question of what to do about Iraq. Their mantra was: Wait for General Petraeus. Among Washington insiders, it was no secret why: The hugely unpopular war was largely responsible for the party's massive defeat in November 2006, and as party officials scanned confidential internal polls, things weren't looking any better for 2008. Rather than answer questions about the need to change course in Iraq, the GOP hoped and prayed that the general--dubbed by some "Petraeus ex machina"--would fly in from Baghdad with good news to report, so Republicans could relax.
He didn't, and they can't.
Though the new Republican mantra is that the surge is working and that Petraeus needs more time, there is little evidence the American public was swayed by the general's report that the war in Iraq is turning around. Four and a half years into the grinding conflict, public opinion has decisively shifted against the war, and it isn't going back, according to GOP pollsters and consultants. "The American people have turned the page on Iraq," says Kellyanne Conway of The Polling Company, a GOP firm.
George W. Bush's damn-the-torpedoes determination to stay the course in Iraq has thus created an excruciating dilemma for the GOP. By sticking with the White House, Republicans in Congress can block the Democrats' efforts to end the war, either by filibuster or by upholding an almost certain veto of any bill challenging the war. But any such victory will be Pyrrhic, costing them dearly in next year's election. Between now and then, they'll remain trapped between a White House that isn't ready to give an inch and a Democratic caucus in the House and Senate that can force them to cast vote after embarrassing vote in defense of Bush's war over the next thirteen months, in full public view.
Although Democrats have the stronger hand, Iraq poses a significant challenge for them, too. Having largely adopted an antiwar stand, the Democrats can look forward to 2008 secure in the knowledge that public opinion is overwhelmingly on their side. Still, since they don't have the votes to force a shift in the war, they may find themselves caught between their disappointed, left-leaning antiwar base and a GOP attack machine describing them as "Defeatocrats." Even with public support, it will require some real political skill for the Democrats to highlight the White House's sorry record in Iraq--from the rigged intelligence that justified the war to the mismanagement of the occupation to its enormous cost in lives and treasure--while insuring that the Republicans pay the price.
On the Hill, Republicans are mightily aware that pollsters, pundits and politicians predict sweeping Democratic gains in 2008 if Iraq is still an issue. With twenty-two GOP-held Senate seats up for grabs next year--many from states that are hotbeds of antiwar sentiment such as Oregon, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Maine and New Mexico--the Democrats have an outside shot at winning a filibuster-proof, sixty-vote majority in the Senate. In the House, Democrats could pick up as many as thirty additional seats. Plus, of course, the White House.
According to Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the GOP is weak everywhere, and Iraq is the main driver. An August 2007 survey of the seventy most competitive Congressional districts Greenberg's firm carried out for the Democracy Corps showed that even in Republican-held districts, 61 percent of voters "want their member of Congress to vote to change President Bush's direction on Iraq and start requiring a reduction of troops." Perhaps the most stunning result of her polling: In the thirty-five most competitive districts now held by a Republican member of Congress, voters favor the Democratic candidate by 49 to 44 percent. "The war hurts Republicans among swing voters, among seniors and older voters, especially older women, in urban/suburban districts, and in rural areas," says Greenberg. Just in urban/suburban districts, where antiwar sentiment is strong, Democrats could pick up eight or nine seats, she says. In Republican-held urban/suburban districts--typified by those held by Representatives Christopher Shays of suburban Connecticut and Mark Kirk of Chicago--fully two-thirds of voters support legislation that would set a deadline or timetable for withdrawal.
Even in rural areas, where the Republican base is traditionally rock solid, the war in Iraq has soured GOP voters on the party. "Given the current national climate, Republicans must win rural areas to see success in 2008, while Democrats in turn have an historic opportunity to strike deep into the Republican base," says a June report by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. And it won't matter how the White House tries to spin the news from Iraq if the news continues to be bad. "Spin is so secondary to substance," says GOP pollster William Greener. "Reality dominates what people are going to think or not think. It won't make any difference what the spin is, if the substance is bad."
Desperate for help from the White House, GOP Congressional delegations visited Bush to express their concern. A group of eleven endangered moderate GOP House members, including Shays, trekked down Pennsylvania Avenue in early May to see if Bush would budge. So did a more select group of senior senators. All were rebuffed. "When the party bulls went to the White House, they said, 'We know for a fact that in eighteen months your policy will be reversed. Are you telling us that for the sake of the next eighteen months, you're willing to destroy the party?'" says Steve Simon, a former national security aide to Bill Clinton. "And the President's answer was, 'Thanks for your interest.'"